JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — At his postgame press conference at TIAA Bank Field, IU head coach Tom Allen’s face was somber, his voice quiet. He had just come off the field, taking a splash from the postgame Gatorade bath meant for Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt.
He walked by himself off the field, silently, after his team let a 13-point lead with five minutes to play slip away.
After IU’s biggest wins and its biggest losses, Allen often found himself emotional to the point of tears. But he wasn’t after the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl loss to the Volunteers.
He talked about the critical miscues on special teams with being in a poor formation for an onside kick and a missed extra point as well as a missed field goal from kicker Logan Justus.
But he closed his press conference with a look to the future. The bright future that was such a key reason why reason IU was in Jacksonville in the present.
“Life is a process of learning from things that happen to us, and the things that you go through,” Allen said. “We’ve got to keep developing, keep recruiting, keep doing the things that we’re doing that got us to this point, and when you have such a young team they’re going to learn lessons from this kind of situation.”
Linebacker Reakwon Jones believed the locker room is full of winners, a group that fully expected to win the game. That’s why the loss hurt to him and the others so bad.
It was his final college game, but looking out at a team far younger than the fifth-year senior linebacker, Jones had a message to a growing team.
“Take this,” Jones said. “Take this in and feel this loss, feel how it feels and you decide whether you want to feel like this or not and that will determine whether or not someone comes back to work after a loss like this.”
Jones wants the young players to focus on the little things that went wrong in the loss. To remember what went wrong so that they won’t go wrong again.
“It’s an experience you’ve got to go through and just feel,” Jones said.
Redshirt-junior quarterback Peyton Ramsey sat next to Allen in the press conference with the same somber, quiet voice. His tight end Peyton Hendershot tweeted after the game that IU wouldn’t have been in Jacksonville without him. But even with the plays he made all season that exemplified the grit and toughness Allen has strived to build his program around, he isn’t part of the future Allen talked about.
Seventy-two percent of IU’s roster is made up of freshman and sophomores. Only seven players on the roster had played in a bowl game before and two of those (offensive linemen Coy Cronk and Simon Stepaniak) didn’t even play in the Gator Bowl.
Indiana still couldn’t find a way to capture a bowl win, and this time around, it came in heartbreaking fashion.@Matt_Cohen_ and @grifgonzo recap this year’s @taxslayerbowl in JAX. #iufb pic.twitter.com/YAPRsrnHsA
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) January 3, 2020
Allen characterized his roster as one having “youthful experience” early in the season. That played out over the course of the year with the fruits of two consecutive school record setting recruiting classes making their impact.
Amidst everything Ramsey was worth to this IU team and season, the quarterback job is still Michael Penix’s when he returns from injury. The Hoosiers were able to flip Penix, a former four-star recruit, away from his original commitment to the Volunteers.
And when he was healthy, even if it was only for fleeting moments suddenly pushed down the list of importance in such a special season, Penix showed off his talent unlike what IU has seen out of the quarterback positions in years. He had IU’s offense humming in a way Ramsey, despite everything he accomplished, wasn’t able to replicate.
He disappeared from the spotlight after his season-ending injury, but performances like he had against Michigan State emphasized how integral he is to any future plans IU has to make seasons like this one the norm instead of the exception.
“We’re building a program that expects to be in these games every year,” Allen said. “Haven’t been in the past. Tennessee has won more Gator Bowls than we’ve won bowl games as a program.”
It’s a group of youth that includes Stevie Scott who has in just two seasons risen from the bottom of the running back room to a premier player in the Big Ten and a focal point for opposing defenses. It includes the left tackle of the future in Matthew Bedford who stepped in nearly seamlessly for IU’s rock at the position, Cronk, when he went down with an ankle injury. It includes James Head, Micah McFadden, Sio Nofoagatoto’a and Demarcus Elliott who all played key roles on an improved defense.
And maybe most notably away from the quarterback position is freshman cornerback Tiawan Mullen had his breakout in the Spartan Stadium endzone, breaking up two consecutive would-be touchdown passes as the beginning of his rise to the top of IU’s depth chart and become IU’s best defensive player, all in one season.
He guaranteed before the season that IU would be ranked in the top 25 this year. He and the team fulfilled on that. And he promised after the Gator Bowl that IU would make a bowl game and win it next season.
Mullen, Penix and the rest of the youth are what give Allen the confidence to expect IU back in bowl games each season and Mullen the confidence to guarantee a bowl win next season.
For now, at least the bowl drought will continue on for at least one more year. Despite the season that ended in heartbreak so often experienced by this program, it’s still IU’s best season in 25 years. Even if the goal before the season was to win this bowl game, the long-term goals Allen set when he took over as head coach still stand.
Even with all the youth, IU will still lose key pieces such as Jones, Stepaniak, Nick Westbrook, Donavan Hale, Hunter Littlejohn, Jerome Johnson, Khalil Bryant and potentially Cronk pending his medical redshirt decision.
None of those losses are easy to replace, and neither is the departure of offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer. But with the youth getting another winter in the weight room, another spring ball under their belts, IU will be laden with experience, and not just “youthful experience” any more. What Allen has built in that group is what got him an extension, keeping him in Bloomington long enough to keep continuity on a program with uncommon upward momentum.